The what, the why and the how of bubblies
Champagne goes down easy—even to those of us who find its labels a bit inscrutable. Champagne has many words and phrases that can feel a little tricky, but everything is there for a reason. Once you grasp a couple of key definitions, you’ll see that it’s easy to be fluent in the language of Champagne. While there’s no need to be a Sommelier to enjoy wine, having peripheral knowledge will allow you to appreciate what you are drinking and will also help you find value, choose your favorite styles and discover food pairings.
Firstly, let’s define Champagne. Champagne is the toponym of one of the most northerly wine producing regions in France. The reason why a sparkling wine is produced here is that it’s too cold to produce substantial still wines; although there is an AOC that encompasses still wine production. The cold weather barely ripens the grapes in most vintages and thereby preserves the grapes’ high acidity. In order for the wine to gain more body and flavor, the still wine is made sparkling. This sparkling character adds complexity, body and deliciousness that would otherwise be reticent in a still wine made from the same grapes. (For a more in-depth look into how Champagne is made check here.)
There are three main styles of Champagne, which can theoretically come from six varieties allowed by law; these styles are Blanc de Blanc, Blanc de Noirs and Rosé. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Munier are the three primary grapes associated with Champagne, although there are three more that rarely appear: Pinot Blanc, Arbanne, and Petit Meslier.
Noir et Blanc
Blanc de Blanc is a term that you will see on a label and is really quite easy to understand. Blanc de Blanc, or “white of whites, “denotes a style of Champagne that is made entirely from Chardonnay grapes. This type of wine will be very creamy, elegant, aromatic and slightly light in body. Opposite of this style is Blanc de Noirs, or “white from blacks.” Though we associate red grapes and red wine, it is possible to make white wine from black grapes because all grape juice is essentially colorless; the color comes from the grape skins. Pinot Noir and Pinot Munier are the two grapes allowed in this style. These wines will tend to be more full bodied, richer and slightly less acidic. Rosé is also made by adding still red wine to the final blend or by the saigneé method, which is when the skins and pulp of the black grapes are left to macerate on the juice, thus tingeing the clear juice pink.
Champagne also comes in varying degrees of sweetness. After disgorgement, or the removal of the lees, a dosage is added to the wine. The dosage consists of a sugary liquid created by a specific recipe.
The varying degrees of sweetness:
What all of this information means to you, the wine drinker, is that you can choose the sweetness or dryness of your champagne within a really clear margin of error. If you know you want a very dry wine, you look for Brut, Extra Brut or Brut Nature. And if you want sweeter Champagne, you go to the other end of the spectrum.
A Perfect Pair
This spectrum of choice brings us to our next dilemma, which is what to pair with Champagne. The great thing about this wine is that it’s incredibly flexible and complements a wide variety of foods. In fact, Champagne’s acidity, aromatics and effervescence allow it to be paired with just about anything.
Sushi and Blanc de Blancs is spectacular combination that melds the freshness and elegance in both items; this pair is one of my favorites. Look to pair a Blanc de Noirs with mushroom crostini—mushrooms and Champagne are classic together. In general, the dry styles of Champagne (Brut Nature and Brut) pair wonderfully with simply prepared lake or ocean fish, shellfish, mollusks and cheese. Look to pair tangy goat cheese with a bright and crisp Champagne, and aged cheeses like Gouda, Cheddar and Parmigianino develop nutty and sweet flavors that parallel the nuances in aged Champagne; it’s especially stunning with Langres, a cow’s milk cheese that’s soft, creamy white and slightly crumbly. Also, it’s worth noting that Champagne is one of the few wines that work well with eggs. There’s a reason why Champagne is served with brunch, and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t serve it at night with a soufflé or a quiche.
While Champagne is fabulous with everything from endive soup to macadamia nuts, do be aware of its limitations. For example, don’t pair sweet items with dry styles of Champagne. The sugars of the food will occupy your sweet receptors, thereby killing any of the wine’s sweetness. Indeed, the acid of the Champagne will take the front seat and be quite overwhelming. Also, the only foods that do not bode well for Champagne are red meats and anything too cold. Ice cream floats, for example, are best saved for root beer. Do enjoy Champagne’s sweet styles with basically any sugary substance that you can conjure up—fruit tarts, fresh fruit, and poached apples make angelic pairings.
Consider yourself a proud graduate of Champagne 101.
Now pick your favorite pairing, pop a cork and enjoy the magic!
A delicious study in pressure
Most Champagne seems pretty expensive, and it can feel hard to shell out 80-100 bucks for a bottle of bubbly when you can buy a handful of bottles of still wines for the same price. I can’t necessarily rationalize the cost of a 500-1000 bottle of Champagne, but I can give you readers a sense of where your money is going—and that requires a fundamental knowledge of how Champagne is made.
The region of Champagne is the most northerly wine producing region in France. This region really pushes the envelope for the cultivation of grapes because it gets almost too cold for the grapes to ripen. It often rains, limiting the amount of sunshine and warmth that reach the vines. Late spring frosts are dangerous—often even a killer. The weather is unforgiving, and the decrease in yields sometimes adds the cost, but also the flavor, of a bottle of Champagne.
In addition to producers growing their grapes under difficult conditions, the method to make Champagne is not for slackers. It’s labor intense, no question. Let’s look at a breakdown of the steps you have to take to make a prime bottle of bubbly.
Step 1: The grapes are harvested like those for any other wine; then they’re pressed and fermented in large stainless steel or glass vats. Some producers, such as Krug, Bollinger and Vilmart, use 225 liter barriques for this fermentation.
Step 2: 5-6 months later the wine is ready for blending. Non-vintage champagne is a blend of about 40-50 wines from as many as ten different years. This step is crucial because this is what gives the champagne its consistent taste year after year. The blending technician is very skilled and knows exactly the percentages of which wines to blend depending on the current years organoleptic qualities. Imagine a chemist in a lab with the nose of a bloodhound and the prognostic skills of a psychic, and you’ll get a picture of what goes into the making of a blending technician.
Step 3: After the wines are blended in a vat, a liquer de tirage is added to the wine. This blend is a carefully mixed quantity of mostly liquid sugar and yeast. The sugar and the yeast are what allow the second fermentation to take place in the bottle. See technician above.
Step 4: After the addition of the liquer de tirage, the wine is bottled and capped. If too much sugar was added in the liquer, the bottle can explode, and if not enough, there will be no carbonation. Remember the equation for fermentation is this: sugar + yeast—->ethanol + CO2. After the bottling they are laid on their sides in chalk caves, so the second fermentation can take place. During this period the yeast die in a process called autolysis. The dead yeast cells sink to the bottom imparting yeasty, bread-like aromas to the wine as well as complexity. The bottles must be left in this position for at least fifteen months for non-vintage and three years for vintage champagne.
Step 5: Now that the yeast is dead, there arrives the long and sometimes laborious process calledremuage. This is when the dead yeast cells are coaxed into the neck of the bottle. Back before the use of machinery, a man called a remuer would turn and angle everybottle of champagne a little downward every day into a vertical position. A top remuer can riddle, or manually turn, around 40,000 bottles per day. Some houses still use a remuer, but they are very costly and time consuming. Most houses now use a girasol. This a piece of machinery holds about 500 bottles and replicates the remuage process.
Step 6: Twelve to twenty weeks later, the bottles are in a vertical position, and it is time to remove all that sediment that has accumulated in the neck. One method called a la volee, uses the pressure inside of bottle to force the sediment out after the enclosure has been removed. The other and more common method is called a la glace. In this method the neck of the bottle is dipped into a freezing brine solution, which freezes the sediment; when the enclosure is removed, the ice and sediment shoot out. This process is called degorgement for obvious reasons.
Step 7: To replace some of the wine that has been lost during the last step, a measured amount of sweetened wine is added to the bottle. This mixture is called the liqueur d’expedition, and it’s what gives the wine some residual sugar and house flavor. Finally, the champagne is topped with the mushroom cork a wire cage and is ready for shipment or storage.
It’s not easy to produce champagne—especially because the caves where the champagne is stored are carved from the chalk soils that run twenty feet into the ground. The chalk provides the perfect storage temperature for the wine. By capturing heat during the day and radiating it during the cold nights, the internal temperature remains constant. From growing the grapes, to mixing the wines, to dealing with yeast, to storing the wine, it’s a whole big thing, but Champagne done right is a wine unlike any other.
As we know from any cursory study of economics, the more labor and that goes into making something, the rarer it is. The smaller the amount and the greater the demand, the more something costs. Champagne is, in many ways, a textbook study of market pressures. But what a delicious, tantalizing and seductive study it is. Expensive, yes, but if you love it, it’s worth every penny.
New DOCG Status for Prosecco di Conegliano-Valdobbiadene
Get ready, America. Prosecco prices are undoubtedly rising soon. But this increase is for good reason: the production zone of Prosecco di Conegliano-Valdobbiadene has finally received DOCG Status. This superior growing zone is restricted to the hills around the towns of the Conegliano and Valdobbiadene in northern Veneto. In these areas, production yields are naturally lower due to vineyards being planted on sloping terraces.
As anyone worth his or her weight in jeroboams knows, low yields assure drinkers higher quality wines than those produced from vineyards with high yields, such as those wines formerly produced under the more relaxed DOC and IGTs of Veneto. These regions churn out enormous amounts of sparkling wine each year, and Prosecco from these areas have become very popular internationally due to their everyday price appeal. While there are certainly many products from these regions that drink well and have their place at the table, now there will be more quality wines.
The theory behind creating a new DOCG is to ensure that a higher quality product makes it to the market and to help reduce the large amount of overproduction in the area. Unquestionably, some concerns arise; many American consumers may balk at the price tag that will accompany these superior Proseccos because most American consumers see Prosecco as an alternative to more expensive champagne. However, while DOCG will certainly fetch higher prices due smaller production, the installation of a Cru system similar to that of Barolo in Piedmont will also bring about far more exciting, high-quality, artisanal Proseccos. Soon DOCG producers will be able to label wines with a singular “Cru,” which will help bring more attention to the area and develop a profound following of Cru Prosecco.
The most important question is this: are Americans ready to fork over $30, $40, or even $50 for Cru Prosecco? Or will this entire idea backfire? It will be interesting to see. It will certainly be fun as a trade member to taste each Cru and experience what a boutique Prosecco tastes like.
Let me ask you: America, are you ready?
A User’s Guide to Cork Popping Perfection
This Sunday night, one thing is assured: someone in Miami will be popping a lot of Champagne. Though beer may be the beverage most often associated with football, the Superbowl calls for a loftier drink. And nothing says “giant, honking win accompanied by great big Superbowl champ ring and bragging rights” like Champagne.
There is something about the ritual of opening the bottle, the “pop” of the cork, and the fizzy bubbles that makes Champagne the most obvious toast of champions. There’s the noise, the expectation, the possibility that something could go awry, the sheer festivity of the effervescence, and the tradition. But there’s also no denying that Champagne is a celebration in a glass. Whether you’re rooting for the Colts or the Saints, you want to have Champagne at the ready.
Here are a few guidelines that will help anyone open a bottle without ruining the wine—or injuring any guests.
- Make sure the bottle is properly chilled; Champagne needs to be around 45 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Remove the foil; there’s usually a little tab or ear to grab and make it easier.
- While keeping one thumb pressed on the top of the cage, use your other hand to twist the little metal tab on the cage, usually about counterclockwise six turns.
- Remove the cage and put pressure on the cork, so it doesn’t shoot out. (The cork can become very narrow on older vintages, so be careful!).
- Hold the cork in place with your left hand, and slowly twist the bottle with your right. (Unless you’re left-handed, in which case reverse those directions.)
- When the cork starts to push out, hold it firmly and allow it to come out very slowly. When the cork is almost out, tilt the cork slightly to allow the CO2 to come out through the smaller space. You should hear a quiet “pffftt” sound—the quieter the better. If the pop is loud, it means that you’ve let out a lot more CO2, thus making the sparkling wine less sparkly.
- Pour into flutes and enjoy liberally while shouting “Who Dat!” at the top of your lungs. (Feel free to substitute other slogans at your discretion and to add flourishes such as high fives, chest bumps and touchdown booty bumps.)
If you follow the steps above, you’ll ensure a safe and happy toasting to the undoubted winners of Superbowl XLIV, the New Orleans Saints. You might also be able to toast the Colts, though I wouldn’t encourage your hopes.
Or : Bubbles All Year Long
While I took ample advantage of the various bubble blow-outs at year’s end, I’ve also not been hesitant to pop corks into the new year. I wanted to take a moment to share with you a few of the more delicious bottles I’ve enjoyed. As you will see, I’ve been on a bit of a grower kick.
André Clouet Silver Grande Réserve Brut Nature NV: lean, mineral and mouthwatering, this no-dosage, 100% Pinot Noir demands food. It’s a serious Champagne that should not be a beginner apéritif wine. Sadly, while I tried to explain that point to my hosts, my explanation was lost on them, even though they are complete wine geeks. One thing to remember about Champagne is this: just because there are bubbles doesn’t mean it comes first! I’ve seen many a complex and full-bodied Grüner Veltliners consumed the same way—even by a table of aficionados. The flute-shaped bottle likely directs those apéritif decisions, but it is an egregious error!
André Clouet Grande Réserve Brut NV: Clouet is in Bouzy where Pinot Noir rules and this wine contains its fair share. I discovered these wines when buying for Spice Market New York and have found every bottle since to be delicious. This bubbly is the more suitable wine simply to open and imbibe.
Georges Gardet Cuvée Saint Flavy NV: containing the trio of classic Champagne grapes (10% Pinot Meunier, 45% Pinot Noir and 45% Chardonnay), this family domaine sources 20% of its juice from its own vineyards. Whiffs of toastiness appear from 20% reserve wines used and 24-month sûr lee aging, but the freshness of the fruit typical in most grower wines dominates.
José Michel Pinot Meunier Brut NV: this Champagne hails from a grower producing 180,000 bottles annually. Pinot Meunier accounts for 45% of their vine holdings, and this wine is a tribute to this variety, which is not often seen on its own. Pinot Meunier provides a nice plumpness on the mid-palate as well as liveliness in the raspberry and rose aromas. Yummy!
Clos Cazal Blanc de Blancs 1995: (Disclaimer: this was a gift I pulled out of my cellar; I’ve not seen this wine in the US.) The first vintage of a very limited production wine from a rare walled vineyard, this wine is definitely mature. While it can hold, I think it’s drinking just fine right now. I’m keen to see how successive vintages are performing.
I hope that you find my continued foray into Champagnes inspiring and that you keep the corks a-poppin’ into 2010. And if you have, I’m curious, what bubblies have you been enjoying (or not)?« go back — keep looking »